Lee Kandu never wanted to be a crusader for same-sex marriage. The Castle Rock, Wash., woman just wanted to file for bankruptcy protection so she could keep her house after her spouse--a woman she married in Canada--was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
But her case thrust her into the national debate when a federal judge in Tacoma ruled that Lee and Ann Kandu, a lesbian couple, can not file jointly for bankruptcy protection as a married couple. Federal law, the judge ruled, defines marriage as a "legal union between one man and one woman."
Judge Paul Snyder's Tuesday ruling marks the first time a federal court has upheld the constitutionality of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, signed into law by President Clinton in 1996.
Critics and supporters of DOMA agree that the ruling of one bankruptcy judge probably will not have far-reaching impact. The battle over same-sex marriage is unfolding in state courts, which won't be affected by the bankruptcy court rulings.
But the decision means everything to Kandu, and she plans to appeal. "The people who came up with the Defense of Marriage Act, basically, have been punishing us for who we are," Kandu, 46, said Thursday. "I feel like we have been tried and convicted, and as a punishment they are taking away our rights. It's just not fair."
Kandu spoke to the Associated Press as she drove to Portland for a doctor's appointment. Both Lee and Ann Kandu were diagnosed with cancer in October 2002: Lee has ovarian cancer, and Ann, who took her partner's last name, was diagnosed with uterine cancer. Surgeries, chemotherapy, and prescription drugs drained their bank accounts as cancer sapped their strength. Lee Kandu, a tax preparer, missed the 2003 and 2004 tax seasons because of the illnesses.
When they married in British Columbia on August 11, 2003, both thought their cancers were in remission. But in October, Ann Kandu learned that her cancer had spread and that there was nothing more the doctors could do. That's when Lee Kandu filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection. She wasn't trying to make a political statement when she identified Ann as her spouse, she said--they had long ago combined their finances and were trying to keep creditors at bay.
"The Defense of Marriage Act--that wasn't our reason for filing for bankruptcy," Kandu said. "I want to deal with the bank; I want to get my life on track."
Kandu represented herself, slogging through bankruptcy law books to make the case that she and Ann should be able to file for bankruptcy together. The U.S. Justice Department opposed her case and pressed the court to uphold DOMA.
On March 25, Ann Kandu died. Lee Kandu sold her office computer and remaining business assets to pay for the cremation.
In his ruling issued Tuesday, Snyder sympathized with Kandu but said the law is clear: Marriage is a union of one man and one woman. As a court of "limited jurisdiction," Snyder said, he must defer to Congress. "There is no basis for this court to unilaterally determine at this time that there is a fundamental right to marry someone of the same sex," Snyder wrote.
He found that the Defense of Marriage Act does not violate the equal protection clause of the Constitution by allowing members of the opposite sex to wed but not members of the same sex.
Snyder said this was the first time the Defense of Marriage Act has been tested in federal court. Although the law is eight years old, previous challenges were denied standing because the parties weren't married. Only after same-sex marriages became legalized in Massachusetts and three Canadian provinces could court challenges proceed.